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California Coastal Commission signals its intent to end OHV use at Pismo Beach entirely

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Photo by Sandra Foyt.

Citing its mission to protect California’s coastal resources, the California Coastal Commission released a report late last week promising to effectively end off-highway vehicle use at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, the birthplace of the dune buggy and the last remaining place in California where one can drive on the beach.

“Put simply, in staff’s view a Park that is fully consistent with on-the-ground realities, and with coastal resource protection requirements, does not include OHV use,” according to a CCC staff recommendation report released ahead of next month’s commission meeting.

While the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District proposed earlier this year to fence off about a third of the 1,500 acres made available to OHVs in response to complaints of excessive dust and particulate matter blowing off the park’s dunes, the CCC report proposes to eliminate all OHV access to the park via a series of measures to address a number of issues.

Those measures include not only the above-mentioned fencing of 500 acres to promote vegetation growth but also the permanent closure of 300 acres currently closed seasonally to protect local snowy plover habitat, a ban on nighttime driving to protect nocturnal wildlife, a prohibition on crossing Arroyo Grande Creek when it connects to the ocean to protect fish populations, limits on the number of vehicles allowed in the park in proportion with the number of acres accessible to vehicles, and the elimination of holiday exceptions to limits on vehicular access to the park.

As pointed out in the report, the entirety of Oceano Dunes is considered an environmentally sensitive habitat area and, according to the county’s Local Coastal Program, OHV use is not allowed in such areas.

“It’s death by a thousand fence posts,” said Jim Suty, the president of Friends of Oceano Dunes, a local group that fights for full access to the dune complex formerly known as Pismo Beach. “They’re truly showing their cards.”

With the report, Suty said his group sees no way to maintain the status quo or to claw back any of the acreage already closed off to OHVs at Oceano Dunes, even if the group shows up in force at the commission meeting.

“They basically threw the book at the park and used every tool they had to do this,” he said. “We might win some concessions, but it won’t be enough.”

Prior to the establishment of the SVRA in 1982, OHVs had access to 15,000 acres at Pismo Beach. The activity there not only led Jerry Miller to create what is considered the first dune buggy but also led Bruce Meyers to create the fiberglass-bodied Volkswagen-based Meyers Manx.

“The act that created the commission calls for it to protect coastal resources, but it also requires them to provide maximum opportunities for recreation,” Suty said. “Our form of camping and recreation goes back more than 100 years.”

Anticipating arguments from OHV advocates and enthusiasts that Oceano Dunes should continue to allow OHVs to the extent it currently does, the CCC report notes that “to do so is to suggest that State Parks should simply disregard the realities affecting this Park, and to suggest that those realities are somehow inconsequential. In staff’s view they are not, and staff firmly believes that they are not inconsequential to State Parks either.”

While the report outlines a path to eliminate OHVs from the park, it also argues that Oceano Dunes would continue to be able to operate as one of California’s nine state vehicular recreation areas by dint of allowing street-legal vehicles limited access to the beach “with a significantly reduced impact on sensitive coastal resources and surrounding communities.” The SVRAs are funded in part by off-highway vehicle registration fees.

Some local residents, citing multiple deaths at the dunes this year, have argued that the park should be closed to all vehicles.

OHV recreation accounts for a significant part of the local economy. According to a 2016 study commissioned by the park, visitors contribute $243 million to the local economy on an annual basis, nearly $2 million of which goes to state and local taxes. According to Suty, up to 3,000 jobs are at stake in the area should the park no longer allow OHV access.

Suty noted that Friends of Oceano Beach has already challenged CCC in court and that the group will investigate filing another lawsuit against the commission “as long as doing so will protect the park and the acreage suitable for off-highway recreation.”

The California Coastal Commission will take up the report and its recommendations at the commission’s July 10-12 meeting in San Luis Obispo, California. For more information, visit